♪ you're right this is a special edition of "nightline," joan rivers, a life of laughter. >> as the tributes pour in, we're remembering joan rivers. the legendary comedienne that died at 81. tonight, she gets the last laugh. >> every laugh that is like a small vacation for someone. >> from her legendary start alongside johnny. >> my hot flashes are so bad, i was hit by a heat-seeking missile. >> joan never seemed to age. and neither did her humor. >> i cannot retire. i have two new faces on layaway. >> and her final act. >> 40 years in the [ bleep ]
business. and this is where you end up. >> joan's last years were some of her busiest. from "celebrity apprentice." >> you're a piece of [ bleep ] and you're a stupid blonde. >> to "fashion police." >> as i press, i hated it. it's something to wash the bird [ bleep ] off my car. >> one of hollywood's hardest workers proved that the only thing she didn't have time for was retirement. >> i will not retire, do you understand me? >> announcer: this special edition of "nightline" will be right back.
good evening. tonight, tributes pouring in for a comic legend. joan rivers died in new york today at the age of 81. now, as the investigation begins into the exact cause of her death, we remember a comedienne who shattered the glass ceiling in a decades'-long career, filled with equal parts comedy, controversy and cosmetic surgery. joan promised she would never retire. and tonight, she left us wanting more. >> tonight's show is like a pair of panties that is shared by christina hendrix and lindsay lohan. >> reporter: this was joan rivers on tv just nine days ago. so full of life. full of jokes. >> amber's outfit is almost as
tacky as amber's seat was when she got up at the end of the show. >> reporter: still making people laugh. the iconic, groundbreaking and often controversial comic. >> oh, it's the next-to-last show. who gives a [ bleep ]? >> reporter: who managed to remain relevant for a half-century, died today. less than a week after being rushed by ambulance to mt. sinai hospital in new york city. she suffered cardiac arrest, during throat surgery at an outpatient clinic. daughter, melissa, broke the news of her mother's passing to the world in a heartfelt statement. my mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. although that is difficult to do right now. the world reacted to rivers' death. in hollywood, with tributes on the walk of fame. to the twittersphere. katy perry tweeting, what's the point in wearing these costumes if joan's not here to rip them
apart. and sarah silverman said, my heart is ripped apart. for decades, she entertained us with that signature line. >> can we talk? >> reporter: she was a woman who spent a lifetime performing. from her start in standup. >> 30 years old, you're not married, you're an old made. a man, he's 90 years old, he's not married. he's a catch. >> reporter: to drawing blood on the red carpet as "the fashion police." >> that's a communion press for shuts. she just reminds me of the girl in high school that spent four years in the bathroom smoking. >> reporter: to her own reality show, co-starring her daughter. >> why am i the last to know. >> reporter: it was this performance on "the tonight show" with johnny carson in 1965, that rivers got her first big break. our own david muir sat down with her in 2009 and took us back to the racy joke that changed her life forever. >> a man doesn't want to come home after a hard day in the
office and find some sexy wife lying on the coffee table saying, tiger, tiger. yes, he does. right then, changed my life. >> weren't you the first and only permanent host? >> i was the first permanent guest host, man, woman or child. >> reporter: ms. rivers broke into an all-male fraternity, at a time when many thought women weren't funny. she took the stage and was just as harsh and raunchy as the men. >> the only way i get heavy breathing from my husband is when he's having an asthma attack. >> reporter: she also made herself the punch line, that gave her a uniquely female voice. >> this is all rubber. let me tell you. it's very good because if i fall down, bounce right back up. >> reporter: years later, she thanked johnny carson for putting her in the spotlight. >> edgar, your husband, who made this book happen. and to johnny carson, who made it all happen. that's very sweet of you. that's nice.
of course, i didn't make it all happen. >> oh, yes, you did. >> i can only take credit for putting you on the show. but i did say one thing that night which i have seldom said on the night over the years. you finished the routine. and you were devastating. and the audience was falling apart. and i said, you're going to be a big star. that's something you don't say. it sounds like -- >> and i looked behind me. i couldn't believe you were talking to me. >> it's "the late show," starring joan rivers. >> reporter: but her success was about to drive a wedge between them. >> as soon as i got the fox show i called johnny. he hung up on me. never, never spoke to me again. >> joan rivers. >> reporter: her show was canceled after just seven months. but carson would ban her for life from his show, for daring to compete with him. and the cancellation was followed by personal tragedy. her husband and long-time manager, edgar rosenberg, would
kill himself three months later. a tragedy that rivers, in classic style, turned into comedy. >> he left me all of the money on the condition, i have to visit him every, single day. so, i had him cremated and had him sprinkled in neiman marcus. i go there twice a day. >> you never saw him so much. >> never saw him so much. weekends, holidays. i'm banging on the door. i got to see edgar. he's near the gucci counter. he would go through great pain and great anger. and with my husband, i had both barrels. i'm still not over his suicide. i'm still furious with him. son of a bitch. i'll kill him. you left me with no money, a child that was -- no career. and you checked out? go [ bleep ] yourself. >> reporter: she would soon turn the depths of her pain into the height of success. her daytime talk show beat out
oprah winfrey in 1990 for the emmy. >> and the winner is -- i'm shaking. joan rivers. >> two years ago, i couldn't get a job in this business. i could not get a job. i'd's good he's not here, my husband, edgar rosenberg, said you can turn things around. >> reporter: she used that throughout her life. today, her life long friend, larry king, paid tribute to her. >> she was consistently funny. and we ought to thank people who make us laugh. they add a lot to our lives. we could appreciate those who give us the gift of laughter. >> reporter: she managed to defy her critics and nature itself. becoming an early aficionado of plastic surgery. >> no one did your eyes in those days. people were saying, what happened to you? i said, the baby punched me in the eyes. and they bought it. people were so stupid in those
days. >> poor melissa. >> reporter: she allowed cameras into the process, on her show, "joan & melissa." >> do you think i need a face-lift? you could make a purse. >> reporter: barbara walters talked to her about it. >> you were very courageous on your reality show. no makeup, you show yourself. >> no makeup. >> bandages. >> let's go. >> you didn't have to do that. why did you do it? >> i think i want people to see what it really was about. >> reporter: before another plastic surgery procedure on her reality show, "joan and melissa," she faced her own mortality head-on. >> if anything happens, melissa, i'm no chicken. i've had a great life. an amazing life. if i die this morning, nobody would say, so young. you're a terrific person. cooper's fine. you're all fine. i've had an amazing life. if it ended right now, amazing.
>> reporter: always eager to laugh through her pain. it didn't stop her from doing what she loved most. >> somebody told me, every laugh is like a small vacation for someone. >> reporter: a fitting mission statement from a woman who led a truly extraordinary american life. next, the final act. how joan rivers reinvented herself. time and time again. (woman) the constipation and belly pain feel tight like a vise. how can i ease this pain? (man) when i can't go, it's like rocks piling up. i wish i could find some relief. (announcer) ask your doctor about linzess-- a once-daily capsule for adults with ibs with constipation or chronic idiopathic constipation. linzess is thought to help calm pain-sensing nerves and accelerate bowel movements. it helps you proactively manage your symptoms. do not give linzess to children under 6, and it should not be given to children 6 to 17. it may harm them. don't take linzess if you have a bowel blockage.
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turning, now, to what will forever be joan rivers, the final chapter. even for one of the hardest working women in hollywood, it was arguably one of her most successful and productive periods. so, how does she do it? tonight, we look at a pioneer who never shroud down. constantly in motion. joan reinvented herself creatively and often physically. a fresh face, getting even fresher. at 75 -- >> you are a piece of [ bleep ]. and you're a stupid blonde. >> reporter: an age when most are already retired. >> i don't want to hear -- >> reporter: joan rivers rere-ignited her career, on "celebrity apprentice." >> you really are a role model for so many people. joan, congratulations. >> reporter: it launched the
final chapter of a storied career. and made her a star for a new generation, who never heard of the pioneering comedienne. >> i'm back, you bastards. >> reporter: we talked to donald trump a short time ago. >> she beat out a lot of powerful people. and strong physically people. she considered that one of the most important things she had ever done. >> 40 years in the [ bleep ] business and this is where you end up. >> reporter: once back in the spotlight, she wasn't going to give it up again. >> tony nominations. >> reporter: she beared her private life in an award-winning documentary called "joan rivers: a piece of work." about her lifelong ambition. >> this is not a full book. >> reporter: she was painfully honest about the insecurities that drove her to fame. >> i'll show you fear. that's fear. if my book ever looked like this, it would mean that nobody wants me. everything i ever tried to do in life didn't work. >> reporter: on display, every, single joke, for over 30 years.
categorized and filed for future use. >> why should a woman cook, so a husband can say, my wife makes a delicious cake to some hooker. rivers helped change the perception of women in comedy, setting the stage for a generation of female comics. >> i'm an artist. i'm doing it for the art, like you are. >> reporter: rivers was constantly in motion. at 81, she showed no science of slowing down. look at what was her upcoming schedule. 25 appearances between now and november 22nd. living up to her promise that she would never retire. >> america needs joan rivers. i will not retire, do you understand me? i plan to be around for the next 100 years. and god bless america. >> these two on the red carpet, back at the trailer park, making the next one. >> reporter: she turned out a weekly show for e! "fashion police," ever ruthless to the
starlets she deemed fashion offenders. >> as a dress, i hate it. it's something to wash the bird [ bleep ] off my car. >> reporter: her celebrity takedowns garnered the most attention. like on "the graham norton show" when she tore into angelina jolie. >> oh, joan, we don't know which children are adopted and we don't know which are ours personally. they're all the same. isn't that right, billy and sally and jimmy and little magumba. isn't that right? anyone that has to stop me and say, why did you say that? then you know, we wouldn't be friends. >> you didn't respond to me. >> reporter: but the stars got one recent chang at revenge, with the a.l.s. ice bucket challenge. >> just do it. just do it. let's get the whole damn thing overwith. do it. >> reporter: the stars of the internet are usually youngsters.
but joan rivers was able to harness 2.1 million twitter followers. tweeting just weeks ago, i'm definitely going to watch the emmys this year. my makeup team is nominated for special effects. with joan, there was nothing offlimits. at 79, she invited cameras to show private moments with her daugt and grandson on her reality show. >> i'm bored. >> you know, cooper, there's a thing called the will. w-i-l-l. >> i know how to spell. >> and you know what it means, too. >> reporter: she brought cameras into her bedroom, with her online show, "in bed with joan." >> i was told you died like ten years ago and you're animatronic. i don't know how you're working this. it's amazing. >> reporter: offstage, joan had a devotion to the needy of new york city. the cause she championed on "celebrity apprentice," in god
we deliver. >> the amount of volunteers. how did you start? >> i started at 8. >> reporter: the organization was initially devoted to helping aids patients, for joan, a personal cause. >> we put tiles up with names of friends who have died of aids. and i think i bought the fourth tile for the wall. there's my first friend who died of aids. that's why i work for god's love. >> reporter: the hallmark of rivers' career, taking the hardships of life and turn them into celebrating, something worth laughing about. >> i was called so-called retirement. >> yes. >> and there may be somebody who wants to know about yours. >> i cannot retire. >> okay. >> i have two new faces on layaway. and i -- >> reporter: and for that, she remains unforgettable. joining us now are barbara
walters, a long-time friend of joan rivers. barbara, thanks for being with us. she was joking in that clip about never retiring. that wasn't really a joke. she never planned to retire. >> she would rather work than do anything. if there were three people in a room, she would perform for them. and you know, it's funny. but she would be thrilled to know that she was getting this worldwide outpouring of love these past few days. and a lot because of "fashion police. "she had a whole, new generation of people who fell in love with her. i'm going to miss her humor. i'm going to miss her gossip. i'm going to miss our dinners together. >> thanks, barbara, for sharing your memories and adding to the tributes coming out today. >> my pleasure. and when we come back, joan rivers knew exactly how she wanted to say farewell, in signature show business style.
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panache. >> when i die, and, yes, melissa, the day will come, and, yes, melissa, everything is still in your name, i want my funeral to be a huge showbiz affair with lights and cameras and action. i want kraft services. i want paparazzi. i want publicists making a scene. i want it to be hollywood all the way. don't give me some rabbi rambling on. i want meryl streep crying in five different accents. i want to look gorgeous. better dead than i do alive. i want to be buried in a valentino gown. i want harry wizard to make me a toe tag. i want a wind machine so strong, that even in the casket, my hair will be blowing more than beyonce's on stage. . >> laughing through tears. joan rivers. as andy cohen tweeted tonight, heaven just got a whole lot funnier. thanks for watching abc news.